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Police given power to intercept cellular communications

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 24 May 2023

The South African Police Service (SAPS) has been given the go-ahead to intercept cellular communications for mass-surveillance purposes.

This, after justice minister Ronald Lamola gazetted a five-year “certificate of exemption”, under the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication-related Information Act (RICA).

According to a News24 report, the exemption “grants the police the right to own what may otherwise be illegal devices intended for surveillance, such as keystroke recorders that attach to computers, laser microphones and tiny video cameras”.

In the Government Gazette, Lamola says acting in terms of section 46 of RICA − and in consultation with the Cabinet members responsible for communications, defence, state security and policing − he exempts the SAPS, thereby allowing the acquisition of mass-surveillance equipment for a period of five years.

He says the national police commissioner must personally authorise the purchasing of:

  • International mobile subscriber identity-catcher or IMSI-catchers.
  • Any equipment reasonably necessary to be used with such IMSI-catchers.
  • Any software to be installed on such IMSI-catchers or equipment reasonably necessary to be used with such IMSI-catchers.

An IMSI-catcher is a telephone eavesdropping device used for intercepting the mobile phone traffic and tracking location data of mobile phone users.

Essentially, it is a “fake” mobile tower acting between the target mobile phone and the service provider’s real towers, and is considered a man-in-the-middle attack.

They are utilised in a number of countries by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but have raised significant civil liberty and privacy issues.

“All listed equipment and any equipment reasonably necessary to be used with such listed equipment must be marked with a non-alterable identification number,” the gazette reads.

Under the exemption, SAPS is enabled to use hardware keystroke recorders, which record keystrokes of a keyboard of a computer device, and either store the recorded information, or make the recorded information available to a preselected IP-address.

Justice and constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola.
Justice and constitutional development minister Ronald Lamola.

Also falling under the exemption is the use of night vision and thermal imaging apparatus, as well as wiretaps used for the interception of indirect communications during the course of its transmission over a fixed systems (circuit- and packet-switched) electronic communications network (telephone communications).

Electronic amplified microphones that can be used to intercept direct communications with an effective interception range of less than 700m can also now be used by the police, reads the gazette.

It adds that law enforcement can utilise laser interception devices that can be used to intercept direct communications with an effective interception range of less than 700m.

It can also use miniature radio frequency transmitters that can be used to intercept direct communications, as well as miniature recording devices that can be used to intercept direct communications. Also included is the use of miniature video or audio cameras.

News24 reports that SAPS had applied for the kind of exemption now in force, the justice department told a committee meeting – in 2010, 2011 and 2012, but “these applications were unsuccessful since the approval of some of the relevant ministers could not be obtained”.

This time, it states, the ministers agreed, as did Parliament.

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